Toronto History

A station with a rich history


"You build your stations like we build our cathedrals."
Prince of Wales at Union Station's official opening in 1927

Prince of Wales - opening Union Station City of Toronto Archives Fonds 1266, Globe and Mail Collection, Item 11128
In front of a large crowd on August 6, 1927, His Royal Highness, Edward, the Prince of Wales, cut the ribbon that opened Union Station with a pair of gold scissors. The Prince of Wales was accompanied by his brother and sister-in-law, the Duke and Duchess of York (shown in foreground of photo), British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin and Mrs. Baldwin, and Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King. The welcoming party included Ontario Lieutenant Governor William Donald Ross and Mrs. Ross, Ontario Premier G. Howard Ferguson and numerous other members of the Ontario and Canadian governments.

After cutting the ribbon, the Prince of Wales was escorted to the ticket counters where he was issued the first ticket ever sold at Union Station. The ticket was to Alberta and cost $71.20 which today would be approximately $1184.49. During this 11-minute ceremony, the Prince of Wales was also presented with a gold key that unlocked the station. Later that week, on August 11, the Station received and dispatched its first passenger trains.

In the late 19th century many small rail companies served Canadian cities; many of these built their own rail station in each city they served. The opportunity to combine forces and build one station was a result of the great fire of April 19, 1904. The fire demolished 14 acres of Toronto's downtown manufacturing and warehouse district. The Canadian Pacific (CPR) and Grand Trunk Railways, recognizing the need for a larger station, lost no time negotiating with the City for control of some of this valuable land. The City leased the present Front Street property to the Grand Trunk Railway in 1905.

Construction began in 1914, a time when railway stations were viewed as the gateway to a city. Material shortages during the First World War, and the collapse of the Grand Trunk Railway in 1919, delayed completion of the station. Finished in 1921, it remained unused for six more years because of legal wrangling between, the Harbour Commission, the City, and the railways over grade separations. In 1924, a final plan was approved by the Board of Railway Commissioners, and work on the necessary viaduct, bridge, grading, platforms and trackage commenced. During this time the old Union Station remained open.

Beaux arts architecture

A number of architects collaborated on the new Union Station design: the Montreal firm of G.A. Ross and R.H. Macdonald, Hugh Jones of the CPR and John M. Lyle of Toronto. Designed in the Beaux-Arts style, it was the largest and most opulent station erected in Canada. Monumental in design, the Great Hall features a coffered vault ceiling of Gustavino tiles. The shape of the ceiling is echoed in the four-storey, barrel-vaulted windows on the east and west walls. Mid-way up the north and south walls are carved the names of the cities that were then serviced by the CPR and the Canadian National Railways (CNR), the government-owned railway that replaced the Grand Trunk. The list alternates from side to side, naming the cities from east to west.

The interior walls are of Zumbro stone from Missouri; the floors are Tennessee marble, laid in a herringbone pattern. The exterior walls of the station are Indiana and Queenston limestone. Each of the 22 Bedford limestone columns weighs 75 tons is 40 feet high.

Since the opening in 1927, Union Station has been one of the most significant hubs in Canada's transportation network. In the last 35 years, the station has taken on added importance in the Toronto area as the terminal for commuter rail services and as a vital link in the Toronto subway system. Many events that have helped to shape the nation have taken place at Union Station. It was the scene of tearful goodbyes and joyful reunions during the Second World War and was also a gateway for many immigrants arriving in Canada. Today, the station is recognizable nation-wide. Time has only increased the numbers that walk through those Bedford limestone columns.

Outside construction of Union Station December 11, 1917 City of Toronto Archives SC 172, Series 2, Item 49 - click for larger image

The building of Union Station was ordered by the Board of Railway Commissioners in 1905. The ground under Union Station was owned by the City of Toronto, which leased it to the Grand Trunk Railway in 1905, then later to the Toronto Terminals Railway Company (jointly owned by Canadian National and Canadian Pacific) to build Union Station.

Union Station was designed in the grand manner of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris by a team of architects composed of the Montreal firm of G.A. Ross and R.H. MacDonald, Hugh Jones of the CPR and John M. Lyle of Toronto. It was built by Canadian Pacific Railway and Grand Trunk Railway at a time when a railway station was viewed as the gateway to a city, Union Station was the largest and most opulent train station erected in Canada during the last great phase in railway station construction. Construction began in 1913 but was delayed for several years because of the First World War.

The station was officially opened by the Prince of Wales on August 6, 1927 and received and dispatched the first passenger trains on August 11, 1927. Construction on the station had in fact been completed eight years earlier.

Waterfront rail history

  • The first passenger train departure in Upper Canada originated from a wooden shed opposite the Queen's Hotel on Front Street on May 16, 1853.
  • The Northern Railway of Canada then moved its rail shed to a point below the embankment opposite what is now Spadina Avenue.
  • The Grand Trunk Railway of Canada established a station at the corner of Front and Bay in 1855; this became Toronto's first Union Station in December 1855, when the Great Western Railway arrived to share the facility with the Grand Trunk Railway.
  • In the Great Fire of 1904, the 850-foot long block of Front Street between Bay and York where Union Station now stands was reduced to rubble, save two or three buildings.
  • When the Royal York Hotel was built in 1929, it introduced Toronto's first sub-grade path, linking the Hotel and Union Station.
  • The Ontario Government announced on May 19, 1965 that it would begin operation of a new commuter service on Canadian National trackage between Hamilton and Pickering. GO Transit was born with the first train to leave Oakville eastbound on May 23, 1967. GO established new railway marshalling yards in Toronto's suburbs to handle most of the freight traffic with a terminus at Toronto Union Station.

Old Union Station

Tracks at Toronto's Old Union Station City of Toronto Archives RG 8, Series 79, Item 236Before the current structure, an earlier Union Station was built in 1872 on Front Street between York and Simcoe Streets. The front of the old station was completed in 1895 and contained ticket offices, waiting rooms and railway offices. It was designed by E. P. Hannaford, Chief Engineer of the Grand Trunk Railway. The station was modelled on the Illinois Central Station in Chicago and had three domed towers, one containing a clock. In its time, the previous Union Station was considered to be one of the most modern and handsome stations on the continent. Its tall silhouette was a noted feature of the turn-of-the-century Toronto skyline.

Even though this station almost doubled the previous station in size, demands for an even larger station came soon after the completion. By 1911, the station handled some 40,000 passengers on more than 130 trains daily. The trainsheds were demolished in 1927 and 1928, and the station was torn down in 1931, four years after the present facility was officially opened.

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